The Human Element: Challenges of Quantifying Judicial Productivity

Advanced performance metrics have made their way from academia to the mainstream, and are now used constantly in measuring everything from business productivity to athletic performance.  But this single-minded focus on “the numbers” may sometimes lead us astray.  On Friday, November 8th, the BBA’s Administration of Justice section co-sponsored the New England Law Review’s annual fall symposium entitled “Benchmarks: Evaluating Measurements of Judicial Productivity.”  The event was based around the work of Judge William Young of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts and New England Law professor Jordan Singer, who theorized that “bench presence,” meaning the number of hours a trial judge spends adjudicating issues in the court room, is the most important statistic in measuring a trial court’s overall productivity (read their works here and here).  

The afternoon “practitioner panel” featured Sara Shanahan, partner at Sherin & Lodgen and co-chair of BBA’s Administration of Justice Section; Jonathan Albano, managing partner at Bingham McCutchen’s Boston office and member of the BBA’s Amicus Committee; Honorable Paula Carey, Chief Justice of the Trial Court; and Robert Farrell, Clerk of the Court for the District of Massachusetts, who shared their ideas on judicial productivity.

From the start, it was clear that practitioners are less concerned with judicial efficiency metrics and more interested in the fair, measured, and generally efficient administration of justice they have come to expect from Massachusetts courts.  Mr. Albano explained that when he argues a case, he wants the judge to worry about only one thing – the case, not his statistics.  He likened judicial productivity studies to billable hours in the practice of law and saber-metrics in baseball.  They take the fun out of it and have the potential for negative impacts. 

Chief Justice Carey said that internally, the courts do see value in metrics.  She explained the work the court is doing to gather and use data.  Under its new strategic plan, the trial court is focused on “One Mission: Justice with Dignity & Speed.” 

In the midst of revamping its judicial evaluations program, the court is examining the process, evaluating the questions, and reaching out to the bar for input.  Chief Justice Carey emphasized that evaluations are confidential and important to the court.  She noted that in addition to bench presence, participating in scholarly public events and issuing clear, professional, and timely written opinions are important.

In sum, metrics are only useful when understood within a greater context – they can’t measure everything and at the end of the day, even judges are human.  We are lucky that in Massachusetts, we have some of the best judges in the country.  They are devoted to justice and interested in metrics as a performance enhancement tool.  As members of the bar we can help by giving specific, useful, and reasoned feedback to the courts through their judicial evaluation process.  From judges, to lawyers, to the public, we all play a role in assuring that the courts continue to meet the high standards of justice Massachusetts needs.

- Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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